In The Beginning
Gabriel JACKSON (b. 1962)
In the Beginning was the Word (2008) [13:22]
Nicholas GOMBERT (c. 1495-c. 1560)
Lugebat David Absalon [8:08]
Thomas WEELKES (1576-1623)
When David Heard [3:27]
Eric WHITACRE (b. 1970)
When David Heard [14:12]
Giovanni Pierluigi da PALESTRINA (c. 1525-1594)
Nunc Dimittis [3:53]
Gustav HOLST (1874-1934)
Nunc Dimittis [3:25]
Pawel LUKASZEWSKI (b. 1968)
Nunc Dimittis [4 :52]
Aaron COPLAND (1900-1990)
In the Beginning [17:51]
Choir of Merton College, Oxford/Peter Phillips, Benjamin Nicholas
Natasha Tyrwhitt-Drake (organ)
rec. 25-26 April 2011, Merton College Chapel, Oxford, UK
DELPHIAN DCD34072 [69:14]

Merton may be one of Oxford’s most ancient colleges, but the idea of a choral foundation there dates only from 2006, and the choir sang its first service in 2008. Peter Phillips and Benjamin Nicholas are the Directors of Music, which in itself is testimony to the seriousness and ambition of the venture. It has paid off, as this, the choir’s first commercial recording, amply demonstrates.

The disc opens with an extended composition, Gabriel Jackson’s In the Beginning was the Word, composed for these performers. It is a setting for choir and organ of the first fourteen verses of St John’s Gospel, telling of the coming of John the Baptist. The opening of the work is pensive, the close too, but the central section is more dramatic, featuring an arrestingly original treatment of the word “Light”. The choral writing is highly accomplished throughout, but just as striking is the way the organ is used. Hardly ever does it accompany in the accepted sense, but comments instead, reacts and interjects. This work finds its place squarely within the Anglican musical setting and tradition, but is at the same time refreshingly unusual and original.

There follow three different musical treatments of the story of King David and the death in battle of his son, Absalom, as told in the Second Book of Samuel. The eight-part motet by Nicholas Gombert, Flemish composer and pupil of Josquin, is a quite extraordinary musical representation of grief, with great swathes of weeping phrases surging and overlapping, and with a passage of homophony all the more powerful for being the only one. Thomas Weelkes, too, in his short anthem, finds just the right harmonic language, dissonant yet understated, to express this moving yet ambiguous tale. I have not felt able to share the widespread enthusiasm for the music of Eric Whitacre, and however hard I try – and I really have tried – his extended treatment of substantially the same text here has not made me change my mind. Comparisons between one composer’s way and another are often fruitless, but here, juxtaposed as they are, it is difficult to escape the feeling that where Gombert and Weelkes achieve just the right atmosphere, a sort of ecstatic grief kept within the bounds of dignity and restraint, Whitacre goes over the top in music of the utmost aural beauty, but which rests on a soft, luxurious cushion of richness and overindulgence. This is a personal reaction, and I will not think ill of those who disagree! Each of the three works poses its own particular problems in performance, problems that this marvellous choir overcomes with apparent ease.

Three settings of the Nunc dimittis follow. Holst’s rises to a surprisingly passionate climax after an opening chord that builds up, voice by voice, and then leads us straight into a key which is decisively not the one the ear is expecting. Palestrina’s late setting is largely homophonic, and quite without the restrained, evening feel that we are used to from the Anglican service. Is there a momentary lack of conviction at the opening of the doxology? Is it a separate take? The question marks indicate my own uncertainty, but whatever the answer this is the only moment of doubt in two magnificent performances. The choir put in just as fine a showing in the beautiful setting – without the doxology – by the Polish composer Pawel Lukaszewski. Tonal in language and rich in texture, this short piece transports us from its very first notes into quite another liturgical world. It is, to my ears, a work of total sincerity and integrity.

The programme closes as it opens, with In the Beginning, in this case, Copland’s a cappella setting of what at first sight would seem to be a most intractable text, the first chapter and seven verses of the second chapter of the Book of Genesis. This ambitious piece, the longest on the disc, does not give up its secrets easily, but attentive and repeated listening reveals the subtlety with which the composer illustrates the different events of the story. The world, according to Genesis, was made in six days, and the exultant culmination of that work, and of Copland’s too, is the creation of mankind. The role of narrator throughout, in particular intoning the words of God, is taken by a solo mezzo-soprano. Beth Mackay is outstanding here, as are those other choir members who take smaller solo parts in earlier works.

This disc marks the wider launch of a new choral venture that is bound to endure. These young singers offer a most satisfying musical experience, singing with admirable weight of sound, impeccable tuning and fine, clear diction. Only very occasionally, in certain high-lying phrases, does one have the feeling that perfection in terms of homogeneity of tone is still to be achieved. All sung texts are given, the Latin translated into English, and three people are named as responsible for the excellent booklet notes. The recording is beautiful, and the very attractive presentation of the disc is the last detail that makes this a very desirable issue indeed.

William Hedley

A first recording from a new Oxford choir, a lovely programme beautifully sung and recorded.